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Flower fees may go to suit

If the Community Development District loses an open government lawsuit, it may use beautification funds to pay for its legal costs. The only other option, says the board chairman, is to raise taxes.

By MELANIE AVE

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 11, 2000


TAMPA PALMS -- Residents may be paying through the flower bed instead of the pocket book if the taxing district loses an ongoing open government lawsuit.

The Tampa Palms Community Development District may curtail plans to spread new mulch and plant blooming flowers this fall in order to pay for a lawsuit filed last year by Bob Doran, said Mark Fitzpatrick, board chairman.

"We may say, "Flowers at the main entry look nice, but they cost money,' " Fitzpatrick said. "The bottom line is we either cut amenities or raise taxes, and I'm dead set against raising taxes."

The CDD recently lost the first round of the lawsuit, which said the taxing authority held four private meetings. A final ruling, including a decision on attorney fees, is pending.

The district's board will discuss ways to pay the legal costs at its next meeting, set for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Compton Park Recreation Center, 16101 Compton Drive.

The CDD is bemoaning the potential legal expense, but Doran's attorney said the district could have avoided a financial outlay by admitting early on it violated the state's Sunshine Law.

"I think it's a good thing they're worried about attorneys' fees," said Jon Kaney, a well-known First Amendment attorney based in Daytona Beach. "But it's a little bit late."

Residents pay taxes to ensure Tampa Palms is landscaped and attractive. And if the community's appearance suffers, that could give them pause, said Maura Lear, manager of the Tampa Palms Owners Association.

"That would be very disconcerting," Lear said.

Kaney said he sympathizes, "But I'm not going to give the residents a free lawsuit."

He said the CDD, not Doran, is to blame.

"When public officials believe they're too important in a democracy to be scolded by citizens like Bob Doran, it's always a mistake," Kaney said. "You're not above the democracy."

The CDD, which has a $1.4-million operating budget, uses property taxes to care for the common areas within Tampa Palms such as flower beds, medians, trees, signs and lighting.

Fitzpatrick said the CDD's attorney will most likely charge the authority between $40,000 and $50,000, and Doran's attorney could cost between $60,000 and $70,000.

To come up with the money, the authority could raise taxes or cut back on expenses, such as a planned $80,000 mulch project this fall, Fitzpatrick said.

He suspects Tampa Palms residents will be angry to see shrubbery trimming and colorful flowers get short shrift, but he believes they would be furious if taxes were raised.

Residents now pay 2.6 mills to the CDD, but the board could increase the assessment up to the 5-mill cap. A mill equals $1 for every $1,000 of assessed, non-exempt property.

Doran, a Tampa Palms resident and former CDD board member, sued the district last year. He said the board met illegally, but the board said it met privately under the advice of its attorney. The State Attorney's Office agreed with Doran that the authority violated the law but said the private meetings were unintentional and did not warrant a criminal charge.

On Monday, CDD attorney Peter Winders asked the judge to reconsider the recent decision siding with Doran.

He considers the lawsuit moot because the issues that had been discussed privately have since been talked about publicly. The board also enacted stricter policies on closed-door meetings.

A hearing has been set for July 31.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Manuel Menendez Jr. said on May 24 that the CDD violated the state Sunshine Law at least four times between 1996 and 1999.

Attorneys from both sides refused to reveal their fees to date, but Fitzpatrick said he is worried.

In April, the five-member taxing authority voted 4-1 to spend $130,000 on improved lighting for entrance signs. Fitzpatrick voted against the sign expenditure because of the looming legal costs.

Even though Fitzpatrick believes the CDD was right, he doesn't want the taxing authority to continue fighting the lawsuit.

"We need to get beyond this," he said. "I wouldn't find it prudent to continue."

-- Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3473 or melanie@sptimes.com.

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